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Let The Flight Cancellations Begin; More Connecticut Funerals Today; Seeking Answers On Benghazi Attack; Biden Meets With Law Enforcement; Fiscal Cliff Negotiations; Winter Storm Alert; Bales on Trial; Sexual Assaults on the Rise in American Military Academies

Aired December 20, 2012 - 13:00   ET



SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to the CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Suzanne Malveaux. Here is what's going on right now. The first major storm of the season is hitting the Midwest closing roads, forcing holiday travelers to stay home. A blizzard warning stretches from Eastern Colorado to Wisconsin. More than 30,000 people have lost power in Iowa which has seen the most snow since so far, as much as eight inches. We have just learned Southwest Airlines has canceled all flights out of Chicago's Midway Airport, starting at 5:00 Eastern.

Near white-out conditions on the roads caused a 30-car pileup near Fort Dodge, Iowa killing one person. The storm is heading east and is expected to hit New England sometime tomorrow. We're going to keep our eye on that system and bring you the very latest through the hour.

We also have an update on the aftermath of the elementary school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. Hearses making their way through town again today. At least three more students, a teacher, and school therapist are being laid to rest.

Vice President Biden, he is meeting next hour with law enforcement representatives and cabinet members. He is leading the president's effort to come up with new proposals to reduce gun violence.

Also today, attorney general Eric Holder, he is meeting with law enforcement officials and first responders in Newtown.

We've also learned new information about the gunman's mother. Friends say that Nancy Lanza went on vacation alone at a resort in New Hampshire days before the shooting. She checked out last Thursday afternoon. Her son killed her and went on his murderous rampage Friday morning. We're going to have more on the investigation.

Right now on Capitol Hill, second hearing is set to start on the attack that killed four Americans at a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, while she was supposed to be in the hot seat there, but two of her deputies, they are answering to Congress instead. You're looking here, this is earlier, a Senate foreign relations hearing. Questioning has now moved over to the House. The hearings are following an independent report that blame the State Department for what they called systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies regarding embassy security. Elise Labott is in Washington. Elise, what have we learned so far during this Senate session?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Suzanne, I think there were some tough questions, but basically the only thing Tom Nydes and Bill Burns, the deputy secretaries, could do is just be sufficiently contrite, take their medicine and say, listen, we know that there were a lot of mistakes made and we're going to have to do better. We're going to need to implement those recommendations of this independent panel. And so, that's basically what we learned is that the State Department is taking this very seriously and is ready to do whatever it can. I don't think we really learned anything new from the hearings though.

MALVEAUX: We know that there was -- at least one State Department official has resigned, three others placed on administrative leave as a result of this independent report. What do we expect to come out of these hearings?

LABOTT: I think a couple of things. I think, first of all, recognition that the State Department needs to make these reforms right away because you still see it's a very unstable situation, particularly in the Middle East. A lot of posts are very fragile and the State Department needs to start working on some of these reforms. I think, also, there's going to be a lot of questions about whether any other heads should roll, if you will. We had the top deputy diplomatic security official, Eric Boswell, who resigned and a few of his deputies. But there are a lot of questions. How far up the chain of command that this went and whether some other people should be held accountable.

MALVEAUX: And at least finally, why is it that secretary of state Hillary Clinton is not actually held responsible here? I mean, she says she's accepting these recommendations. Why is it that she's not before this group?

LABOTT: Well, the reason that she's not sitting before the group is because she's still, as you know, suffering from a concussion and the doctor's orders to rest, and that's why she's not there today, but she does plan to testify in January. But the panel found that the fault really lied at kind of the mid-level, Suzanne, where that's where they say the rubber meets the road in terms of the security decisions that were made. And they left it at that and never went up to the chain of command. And so, that's why secretary isn't responsible.

A lot of people want to know, though, how involved she was in the security and also one other thing, Suzanne, I think that came out of the hearing today is Congress' responsibility in terms of providing more resources for security. And that's something that senator John Kerry brought up today. You know, he's wildly expected to be the next secretary of state, and he kind of made clear that he's going to be before this committee in the months ahead coming for more resources for the department.

MALVEAUX: All right, Elise Labott. Thank you, appreciate it.

Vice president Joe Biden now charged with heading up White House efforts to address gun violence. Well, he's meeting with law enforcement leaders from around the country right now in Washington. They are talking about what to do in the aftermath of Friday's massacre in Connecticut. This is the first step since yesterday's announcement by the presidency -- the president, rather, of this interagency effort to address a very serious problem and that is gun violence.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This is not something where folks are going to be studying the issue for six months and publishing a report that gets read and then pushed aside. This is a team that has a very specific task to pull together real reforms right now.


MALVEAUX: The vice president, he is joined by attorney general Eric Holder; secretary of education Arne Duncan; secretary of homeland security Janet Napolitano; and the secretary of health and human services Kathleen Sebelius.

There's a showdown playing out on Capitol Hill today that could mean higher taxes for almost all of us. The House votes on speaker John Boehner's backup proposal to avoid the automatic tax increases and spending cuts that are set to take effect just 12 days away. The president is threatening to veto that plan. Now, Boehner's fall-back plan what would it do? It would raise income taxes on those making more than a million dollars year. The president wants higher rates to start around $400,000 a year. Now, Boehner would couple his tax hike with a repeal of limits on income tax deductions and incentives. The White House calls that another gift to the rich. Both sides want spending cuts, but the president also wants the debt ceiling raised high enough to get us through 2014.

Well, a new CNN ORC poll reflects the concern among any of us if the two sides don't reach a deal. 20 percent say going over the so-called fiscal cliff would lead to a crisis, 50 percent say it would cause major problems. When asked which side should compromise more in the talks, 53 percent say that Republicans should, 41 percent say Democrats should compromise more.

So, after progress -- we saw progress earlier in the week. The fiscal cliff talks, again, hitting a roadblock. I want to bring in Dana Bash on Capitol Hill. Dana, you must be back and forth, back and forth, thinking, where are we now? Are they ready to compromise here? Because it looks like we're at a standstill again.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The answer right now really appears to be no. That's just public rhetoric as well as what's going on, or maybe the right way to say it is what's not going on privately. I'm standing here in front of this podium because we're going to see the House speaker come out and talk probably in about 10 minutes. This is after we just heard from Senate Democrats.

And, frankly, what was sort of an oddly giddy press conference talking really, really explicitly about the fact that no matter what happens later today with the House vote to -- as you just said, Plan B, to keep taxes in place for incomes making up to $1 million, the Senate's not going to do anything with it. In fact, they're going to go home and deal with some other things and come back after Christmas. They're also trying to make analogies to what they think the Republicans are doing. One analogy was, remember that movie, "Thelma and Louise," --


BASH: -- where the two women held hands and --


BASH: -- drove off the cliff together?


BASH: That's where the analogy is. Listen to Dick Durbin, the number two Democrat in the Senate.


SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), ILLINOIS: Remember the closing scene in "Thelma and Louise?" Rather than face the reality of what lies ahead, they hit the gas. That's what we're hearing from speaker Boehner now, hit the gas and go over the cliff, because what we have are intense negotiations by speaker Boehner with not the president, his own Republicans. Night and day, working to bring over the Tea Party Republicans to a plan that has no chance.


BASH: And it is true that the speaker and his deputies have been trying all day and last night as well to make sure that they even have the votes from fellow Republicans to put forward this Plan B, so that definitely is a subplot going on here. But the big, important plot is still that the big talks between the speaker and the president, they're virtually nowhere right now and the Senate is saying, once this is done, it's still, from their perspective, got to go back to the court to the talks between the speaker and president or else nothing is going to happen.

MALVEAUX: And, Dana, I mean, it was just this last hour, you were talking to two lawmakers, the Republicans, who said they weren't going to support this Plan B that Boehner has put forward here.

BASH: Yes, exactly.

MALVEAUX: We know that the president is going to possibly delay his holiday, his vacation in Hawaii. He's going to stay in Washington to try to get it done. Do we expect that they're all going to be sitting in their seats? They're going to be trying to hash -- hashing something out before the new year?

BASH: Well, as I said, the two people who are going to have to do this now, again, according to all sides, is going to have to be the president and the speaker. The president is delaying his trip he says. We're going to hear from the speaker about what his plans are. But we just heard from the Senate's top Democrat, the Senate majority leader, that he plans to go to the funeral, or the memorial service, for Senator Daniel Inouye who passed away earlier this week and then a funeral in Hawaii over the weekend, several senators might be doing the same thing. Then, we're up to Christmas Eve and Christmas. So, the Senate is not going to come back until next week. You know, you can be optimistic and hope that perhaps when they get back, they'll have something to vote on, but it's really, really, really too close to call right now. We just don't know.

MALVEAUX: All right, Dana, thank you. We appreciate it.

Like the debate over expiring tax cuts, weather also pretty unpredictable. Just ahead, the official start of winter. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker called for a state of emergency as a severe storm now pummels the state.


MALVEAUX: Wisconsin's governor has declared a state of emergency and much of the Midwest under a blizzard warning right now. We're talking from Colorado to Wisconsin. As much as a foot of snow is expected in some areas with high winds that could reduce visibility to just about zero. Already those conditions have caused a 30-car pileup in Iowa, killing at least one person. More than 30,000 people have lost power in Iowa which has seen the most snow so far, as much as 8 inches. Nebraska authorities closed much of Interstate 80. Holiday shoppers, travelers are being told to stay off the roads. Our Ted Rowlands is at O'Hare Airport in Chicago, second busiest in the country. Ted, I used to live in Chicago. I know how busy that place can be. And now, we are learning that Southwest, right? Southwest Airlines is canceling all its flights out of Chicago's Midway Airport starting at 5:00. What do we know about these delays?

TED ROWLANDS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Well, because of what's coming, Suzanne, right now, it's miserable and we've gotten rain, but it is going to get much worse here in the hours to come in Chicago. And you mentioned those cancellations at Midway. We're expecting cancellations here at O'Hare as well as the hours continue.

Right now at O'Hare, they've been able to get flights out. The problem has been getting planes in from those affected areas from Iowa and up in Wisconsin, like you just talked about, where they're getting absolutely hammered. That's going to be the case here in just a few hours. So, the travelers here who are in line, they are going to get out likely if their planes leave within the next hour or two. But out on the tarmac, they have all the plows ready, the de-icing machines ready, and they are getting ready for a long night here. The travelers that are scheduled to leave after the 5:00 hour are being warned to call ahead. If you come to the airport, bring your patience. There's a good chance you could be delayed once this rain turns into snow.

MALVEAUX: When does Chicago expect to get hit by the storm? Do we have a good idea? ROWLANDS: It started in the form of rain. We expect it between 5:00 and 7:00 to turn to snow. As you know from living here, before it goes to snow it turns into sleet and freezing rain, which makes the roads treacherous. It causes problems for air travel, so between 5:00 and 7:00 central time is when they think it will start and they expect it to continue, blizzard-like conditions all night until 3:00 a.m. Tomorrow. So there's a lot of people stranded overnight at O'Hare and Midway waiting to get home for the holidays.

MALVEAUX: Yeah. Ted pull up a cot. You might be there for a little while. Thank you, Ted. Appreciate it. Here's the last look at the weather across the country.


MALVEAUX: U.S. military prosecutors will decide whether to pursue the death penalty in the case of staff sergeant Robert Bales. He's the American soldier accused of killing six Afghan civilians, most of them children, in a shooting rampage earlier this year. Bales was on his fourth combat deployment. His lawyer blames the army saying they knew Bales had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He is being court-martialed at a military base in Washington state. Those who know him well don't believe the accusations. Kyung Lah has more.


KYUNG LAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The military is wrestling with two competing portraits of army staff sergeant Robert Bales. A talented soldier that served with distinction during three prior deployments to Iraq, a father to two young children. His wife here in green and his sister-in-law told reporters at the end of the hearing. their faith in Bales remains unshaken.

STEPHANIE TANDBERG, SISTER-IN-LAW: Much of the testimony was painful, even heart-breaking, but we're not convinced the government has shown us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about what happened that night.

LAH: By contrast prosecutors paint the picture of a killer operating with chilling rationality. Two fellow soldiers testified that they drank whiskey with Bales at Camp Belambay, a small U.S. base in Afghanistan's Kandahar province. He left his friends at 11PM. At 1:30 in the morning a private told the court he heard gunfire in a nearby village. A villager testified via video link from Afghanistan that he saw a man clothed in U.S. military fatigues and a T-shirt burst through the door of his home and open fire, hitting him in the next. A seven-year-old girl testified she hid behind her father. He died. The girl was shot in the leg. Four people were killed and others wounded.

A guard at the base testified that some time after 1:30 in the morning he saw a U.S. soldier return from the north, the same direction as the village. At 2:00 a.m. Bales woke up a fellow soldier and told him he had, quote, "shot some people up." He added "take care of my kids." Thirty minutes later another guard saw a U.S. soldier leave through the main gate, though he cannot identify Bales. At a second village another bloody massacre. The mass carnage there included women and children, some violently stabbed. Some of the bodies were piled into a room and set on fire. A total of 12 killed in this village, nine of the dead were children. None of the victims, though, could positively identify Bales and some said there was more than one gunman. At 3:00 in the morning Bales was discovered missing from up camp. According to testimony a search party was leaving the base when he returned wearing a makeshift cape and covered in blood. Fellow soldiers testified that Bales said, "did you rat me out?" And " thought I was doing the right thing." The case inflamed tensions in the war-wary nation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): We demand from the court in the United States to give the death penalty to the U.S. soldier who massacred the civilians.

LAH: The defense says Bales suffered from a traumatic brain injury and was in an altered state that night.

EMMA SCANLAN, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: We need to know what it means when somebody is on steroids, alcohol, and sleeping aids. What does that mean about his state of mind?

LAH: The defense argues there are discrepancies in the prosecution's time line as well as how many shooters were involved. U.S. investigators also could not reach the shooting scenes for 20 days because local villagers were furious with the Americans, a sentiment that has bubbled below the surface the ongoing draw-down of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Kyun Lah, CNN Los Angeles.


MALVEAUX: A 12-year-old found a loaded gun in a movie theater. This is in Tillamook, Oregon. Police say it was a semi-automatic hand gun with a round in the chamber and the safety off. The boy did not pick up the gun. He immediately told his teacher, who called police. The boy was part of a group of students being awarded for their good work with a trip to the movies yesterday to see "The Hobbit." Police say they are trying to trace the gun to the owner and have notified the district attorney for possible charges.

New studies show the number of sexual assaults at military academies is now on the rise. Some military women think they're more likely to be raped by a fellow service member then die in combat. This despite Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other lawmakers calling for change.


REP. JACKIE SPEIER (D), CALIFORNIA: All of the generals have come before Congress and said the same thing over again. There's zero tolerance, but nothing ever changes.



MALVEAUX: I want to go to Washington. House Speaker John Boehner is taking about his plan to avoid going over the fiscal cliff. Oh, I see he's walking away. It's part of the public campaign from both sides here to push for their own plans. They're trying to avoid massive tax increases and severe cuts that are expected to go into effect at the beginning of next year if somehow the House and the Senate and the White House do not come up with some sort of agreement, a budget agreement. We're still watching negotiations play out. We know the House Speaker has an alternative plan he's presenting that he will put forward to members later today, and we have heard that the president will, in fact, veto that. So at this point we are simply at a standstill. Have more as it develops.

Cadets at this country's elite military schools are reporting that there are now more sexual assaults. We are talking about West Point, the Air Force Academy, and Annapolis. That is according to a new Pentagon report released today. Barbara Starr has the story.


BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Carly Marquette dreamed of going to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Once there, the dream became a nightmare.

CARLY MARQUETTE, FORMER CADET: I remember him turning off the lights and me asking what are you doing? He proceed to rape me.

STARR: Many military women will tell you they believe there's greater chance they'll be raped by a fellow service member than killed in combat, and the risk of sexual assault is he growing from the time young people enter elite service academies. CNN has obtained advanced details of a new military survey at academies showing the problem is getting worse.

SPEIER: The problem as I see it is no heads have rolled. All of the generals have come before Congress and said the same thing over again. There's zero tolerance, but nothing ever changes.

STARR: In April Defense Secretary Leon Panetta vowed things would change.

LEON PANETTA, DEFENSE SECRETARY: Sexual assault has no place in the military. It is a violation of everything that the U.S. military stands for.

STARR: Some of the most disturbing new information comes from the U.S. Naval Academy. CNN has learned the survey found 225 midshipmen, mainly females, reported they were victims of unwanted sexual contact. Everything from touching to forcible rape in the most recent academic year, but only 12 actually filed formal reports. That's down nearly 50 percent from last year. The Navy's big worry? Women are still not confident their reports will be taken seriously.

SPEIER: The chain of command is part of the problem. You are required to report the incident to your chain of command. Oftentimes the assailant is your commander.

STARR: At West Point and the Air Force Academy, the number of sexual assault incidents reported rose as well. While disturbing, the survey did find the at these schools women appear to be more comfortable going ahead and reporting harassment and assault, though there were many cases of unreported incidents.

And the military is cracking down on senior officers. An army general is scheduled to go to trial in the coming weeks on charges he committed sexual offenses. But at the military service academies, commanders are under growing pressure to make sure their students are kept safe. Barbara Starr, CNN the Pentagon.